THE INERTIA OF SUBURBIA

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THAT hardcover, a bold, bright blue. A real cornerstone of a book. The personalised photographs of the author on the dust jacket, plucked from a private photo album. The noble weight of the text in my hands. I purchased Helen Garner’s True Stories on a day I’d promised myself I’d stop making unnecessary purchases in an attempt to rein in my bloated budget. But the book laying heavy in my hands felt real. Genuine. This is what a book ought to be like, I thought. I must consider this a necessary purchase. I handed the book over to the girl with the blunt, feathery, blonde fringe. Her roots betrayed the natural colour of her hair and I wondered how she kept it looking so neat in the thick, humid air as she shoved the book into a brown paper bag. I left the store through a blast of conditioned air.

Lygon St in late November is no busier than any other time of the year. But the heat makes things feel closer. Cloying. The scent of the street is heady and strong like cheap perfume. The people and the tables out front of the cafes seem to swell like mushrooms in the warm air, and I bump into chairs and children alike. Where other people come alive in the heat, I wilt like a terrible flower. I am unable to tolerate others. I'm meeting a friend for dinner at an Italian restaurant, and when the waiter offers me a table up the back, away from other customers, I relax. My phone buzzed in my pocket. It’s my friend. He will be a little late. Tram delays. I cracked open the spine of my new book, took a swig of my pinot, and fell instantly into the text. The book pulled me in so quickly I feared I’d get the bends.

True Stories is Garner’s latest collection of essays and journalistic pieces, featuring perfectly polished paragraphs, pieces of glass smoothed by the sea. One story in particular — a mere paragraph in length — captures me. Garner writes of a tired wife requesting a martini from her husband. “Soon her returns bearing an expert little creation in a dainty glass,” she writes. “He hands it to her in a forward-leaning posture of gentle formality, and she accepts it with a smile.” That’s it. Elevating the ordinary into the extraordinary. It reminded me of the night before, sitting on the couch at home and asking my boyfriend for a glass of milk. He scuttled off to the kitchen. In a comedic fit he returned to me, a red and white checked tea towel draped over the bend of his elbow. He held his arm stiffly away from his body, an empty glass in one hand and the carton of milk in the other, proffering the milk to me in a childish imitation of a high-end waiter. His body bent at the waist as though hinged. “Madame,” he said in a terrible, faux French accident, and I giggled like a dumb teenager.

That quiet, daggy moment at home means nothing to anyone else but he and I. Garner’s collection is brimming with incidental tales like this. The inertia of suburbia. Chastising a chatty waiter at a bar. Describing a churlish school girl in Melbourne. Watching her grandsons play the piano. In her role as a writer and a journalist she drops in and out of situations hidden away from the public eye. A morgue. A ballet studio. The maternity ward of a hospital and the marriage registry at the Royal Australian Mint in Melbourne. In her description of a hangover she writes “by lunchtime the next day I had stopped being sick but I understood the squalor of life”. Her analysis of ageing sees her “surveying my lengthening past and shortening future”. All these moments are significant in their insignificance. Garner’s writing demonstrates how the real glory in life — and in writing — lies in being simply ordinary. She herself admits “I’m interested in apparently ordinary people”. She dips in and out of memory to pull back a comment, a statement, that is infallible and eternal. And ordinary. So brutally ordinary.

I write daily as a journalist for a newspaper. Words are my game. Each day I sit at my desk sifting through the terse, scattered notes I’ve transcribed and try to put them together into something cohesive, stringing words and ideas together like beads on a necklace. Recently I had begun to think I had burned out. Garner’s work reminds me of the art of simplicity. The quiet, dignified art of minimalism. She really leans heavily into the role of the empathetic storyteller. She makes it look so simple and natural, like we all should do. But we’re not doing it. She is. And that is her skill.

Garner just won a Walkley for Why She Broke, the first story to appear in True Stories. I read the news with a surge of jealousy. Pulling on all 50 years of writing experience, she tells the story of Akon Guode, a Sudanese refugee who drove her children into a lake. Three of her children died in the lake that day. She took an emotionally charged case; something so highly publicised and fraught with perceptions and misconceptions, and she injected some humanity into the mix. The story is shocking. But what I found even more upsetting was the realisation that this capacity for catastrophic human error exists within all of us. Just below the shallows, depravity shadows our waters like circling sharks. I had put the story down with a curious mixture of dejection, repulsion, and inspiration.

True Stories is a fat, calorific representation of decades of work. Garner marries together her deft skills in both fiction and journalism to proffer to the reader deceptively dense nuggets of prose. Between those hard, blue covers spans a lifetime of observation; the beauty of minutiae and simple human brutality. It is a masterclass not just in writing, but in what it is to be human. So often I try to consciously untangle myself from my emotions. On some preservative level I feel it’s better not to connect with a subject in case I fall right into the well of human despair and emotion. But Garner dives right in and lets herself sink to the bottom, holding her breath the entire way down. Kafka wrote “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Reading True Stories felt like hurling a rock through the window pane within, smashing the glass and letting all the stale air escape.

A hand rapped on the table before me. Looking up from the book in the Italian restaurant in Carlton, my friend has joined me. The waiter brings over a plate of bread and butter that was not offered to me when I first arrived as my friend takes his seat. Kisses on the cheek in the heat of the night and we exchange smiles. I’m happy to see him, but slightly miffed I now have to swim back to the surface, pull myself away from my reading and be in the moment once more.

“What are you reading?” he asks.

“Helen Garner’s new book. Got it from Readings.”

“Is it good?”

I nod. “It’s good.”

Made StuchberyComment